Thursday, May 24, 2012

Rant #743: A Radio Legend Passes

Veteran New York-area disk jockey Hal Jackson, who co-owned the first black owned and operated radio station in New York, died yesterday at age 96.

Anybody who listened to New York radio in the 1960s and early 1970s knew Jackson and his velvety voice, but his story is so much more than that.

He began his career in the 1930s, and eventually became the first black sports play by play announcer, announcing black college baseball games and games played in the Negro League. He set the pace for others, such as Bill White, to break the color barrier in announcing professional sports events.

Jackson moved to New York in 1954 and became the first disk jockey--black or otherwise--to broadcast three different shows daily on three different radio stations.

During his career, he was the first black DJ at several stations.

In 1971, Jackson and former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton co-founded the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, which acquired WLIB and later WBLS. The group operates stations all over the country to this day.

And up until his death, Jackson continued to host the Sunday Classics on WBLS.

Jackson may not have been as well known or as popular as Ron Lundy or Dan Ingram, but in the black community, he was the man, probably the most popular disk jockey of his time, paving the way for other minority DJs to make it in New York and across the country, including Chuck Leonard.

My personal recollection of Jackson is that he hosted a concert at the old Palisades Amusement Park that I just happened to be at.

The story goes that my family and I went to the amusement park, and I got sick on one of the rides, I think it was the Swiss Bobs.

I needed to sit down and get a hold of myself, and we sat in the bandstand that they had there. There weren't too many people there at the time, so I just planted myself where I could air things out.

A few minutes later, Jackson got on the stage and introduced the British singer Lulu to the sparse audience. Lulu had had a number of hits in Europe, but was just breaking here.

I remember that she sang "The Boat That I Row"--the Neil Diamond song which was being pushed by her record company at that point in time--and I don't remember much else.

Of course, a few weeks later, disk jockeys around the country flipped the single over, and "To Sir With Love" became a No. 1 hit in America.

So, for all intents and purposes, back during that day in 1966, that show was this nine-year-old's first concert experience.

Although Jackson isn't considered in the same class as those WABC DJs I mentioned earlier, he was an incredibly successful DJ and business executive who saw an opportunity, and went with it. 

Today, there are so many ethnic stations on the dial in New York--many that whites listen to too--that what he and Sutton did may have been revolutionary, in a way, but it foresaw what was happening in the inner city, and proudly used that phrase in its company title.

Jackson was the man, and I will never forget that concert. Rest in peace.

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